Beyond NGOs and protest movements: everyday activism in Serbia, Poland, and Hungary

Project Coordinator: Dr. Piotr Goldstein

Since the 1990s, civil society—understood in a myriad of ways, but usually researched through the study of NGOs—has been viewed as a major agent in the promotion of democracy, and civic engagement more broadly, in Eastern Europe. In recent years, the focus has moved to protest movements, which are seen as new, more genuine spaces of activism and agents of social change.

This project goes beyond these two focuses by looking at forms of activism that are hard to notice because they seek neither financial support, which distances them from NGOs, nor recognition, which separates them from social movements and popular protests.

The project builds on earlier research, which Goldstein conducted during his British Academy fellowship at the University of Manchester. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Poland, Hungary, and Serbia, the project scrutinises discreet, everyday acts of citizenship, which could be considered ‘infrapolitics’ or ‘micro-politics’. They are an alternative mode of participation in contexts where other forms of activism appear impossible or ineffective, or where activists opt for a less radical, more long-term approach.

The interest of the project lies in determining to what extent, for the individuals engaged, these acts form a stage between—or, perhaps, beyond—engagement in NGOs and social movements. The project seeks to ascertain whether these acts are performed independently of such engagements, form a link between different types of activism, or catalyse such activism. The efforts studied have goals similar to those of NGOs and social movements but remain informal, unfinanced, and, for the most part, invisible. Examples include acts to oppose growing social inequalities, nationalism, and capitalist usurpations of public spaces.